Safeguarding Folk Culture in Darjeeling Hills

Damai team practicing Naumati Baja, an ensemble of nine musical instruments © Ananya Bhattacharya

Darjeeling, famous worldwide for its black tea, is rich in cultural diversity. It is a shelter for sixteen distinct indigenous communities from Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan in the eastern Himalayas. As part of the Rural Craft and Cultural Hubs initiative of the state government in collaboration with UNESCO, the communities are working to revitalize folk dances and songs.

In May and June 2018, 466 folk artists participated in workshops, where culture masters or tradition bearers trained the youth in quality performances. The Tibetan community had workshops on the Snow Lion Dance, a performance piece derived from a mythical creature and an integral part of Tibetan folklore. The musical instruments played include drums, flute, cymbals, and dranye. The Tibetans of Darjeeling also have a ritualistic hunting dance called Ngonpai Dhon. Gurung youth learned about the Ghatu Naach celebrating Lossar or the New Year of the lunisolar Tibetan calendar. The nuances of Satighatu Naach performed after a person’s death are also documented.

The close link between natural and intangible cultural heritage is reflected in traditions like the Chyu Rum Faat Alak Dance, which is performed to pay obeisance to the mighty Himalayas. While the Mangars have their Hurra Dance to celebrate the harvest, the Rai community has two dances for the season known as Sakela Sili and Chowan Sili. The Damai community has very few artists who know Naumati Baja, a unique ensemble of nine traditional musical instruments. The simplicity of the people of Darjeeling is reflected in the Lappay Dance of Bhutias or Sileba Dance of the Sherpas performed to welcome guests.

With renewed optimism, Darjeeling is set to celebrate the rejuvenation of its earthy tunes and melodies and the nearly forgotten rhythm and steps. The hills are once again warming up to the sounds of its heritage with a new rhapsody being created by the ancient musical instruments of its indigenous communities, whether it is the Chyabrung drum of the Limbu, the tungna of the Lepcha, the chong mridong of the Dhimal, or the murchunga of the Gurung communities.